The Trump-Xi summit at Mar-a-Lago, Florida

 Trump, Xi, Florida

Chinese President Xi and President Trump in Florida

Source: DonaldTrump/Facebook

The Trump-Xi summit at Mar-a-Lago, Florida, seems to have gone off well. A US spokesman says that the ‘President was very pleased with the outcomes of the meeting.’

While the Chinese readout by Xinhua was dryer, speaking of the meeting ‘setting a constructive tone for the development of China-US relations.’

The most important take away was, in the words of US secretary of state Rex Tillerson that ‘the chemistry between the two leaders was positive.’

Candid chemistry

Given Trump’s demonisation of China through the election campaign and the early turbulence that hit the relationship on the issue of One China policy, the outcome was not easy to predict.

Clearly, however Trump went out of his way to be hospitable to his Chinese guest.

With good chemistry to start with, the two key countries on the global stage can bring what the Chinese call ‘win win’ solutions to their problems, and to those of the world.

A measure of the success of the meeting was the decision to raise the level of the various bilateral dialogues that the two countries undertake on economic, law and order, cyber security and diplomatic and security issues.

They will now be overseen by the two Presidents.

There was plain speaking on both sides, more so on the Americans who profess to have had a litany of complaints.

So, as Tillerson noted, ‘President Trump noted the challenges caused by Chinese government intervention in its economy and raised serious concerns about the impact of China’s industrial, agricultural, technology and cyber policies on US jobs and exports.’

The US was also candid in telling the Chinese that they must adhere to international norms in the East and South China Seas and to their own earlier statements saying that they would not militarise the region.

The Chinese side emphasised its position on the ‘Taiwan issue and the Tibet-related issues’.

In other words, re-emphasised its sensitivity to matters relating to its national territory. In addition, it out forward its position on the South China Sea issue.
There was convergence on North Korea and the need to de-nuclearise the Korean peninsula. But the Chinese made their opposition to the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea clear.

For its part, the US, which is the target of North Korea’s nuclear and missile weapons, is keeping its powder dry.

But the Chinese side could not have missed the significance of the American missile strike on a Syrian base at the time their President was dining with his American counterpart.

But it was only after Xi left the US that the Chinese media openly criticised the strike as being the actions of a weakened president who needed to show he was tough.

Mutual gains

For the Trump administration, clearly, the first priority is not North Korea or the South China Sea, but to get some action on the trade and investment front.

They are looking for short-term and long term responses from their Chinese counterparts. As part of this there is the 100-day plan which will have specific benchmarks aimed at enhancing US exports to China and reducing the trade deficit between them.

In some ways, the feel-good summit meets the purposes of both parties.

Xi Jinping has ensured that the unpredictable Trump will not surprise him between now and the all-important 19th Party Congress later this year.

At the same time he has burnished his image within his country as a statesman who can confidently step out and deal with the world’s biggest power on the basis of equality.

As for Trump, the gains are more subtle. Having assumed power after a shock result, Trump was simply not ready for the complex global issues that a US President must deal with.

Following the summit, he has time to, first, work out the basic outline of what his own foreign policy will be; as of now, as the case of Syria shows, he is merely improvising.

Equally, his trade officials have time to work out a longer term policy to tackle the problems outlined by Secretary Tillerson above.

Regular dialogue

That said, this can be seen as a first encounter between the leaders of two very important countries.

No doubt there will be many more, and perhaps some not so even. But it is in every one’s interest that the two continue to engage each other and work out their problems through dialogue and negotiation.

China’s impact on the world order will only intensify in the coming period. The Chinese are constantly searching for ways to tilt the playing field in its own favour and shift goalposts on whim.

The challenge is to ensure that it plays by the established rules, not cherry pick them, as is its wont.

This commentary originally appeared in Mail Online India.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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Manoj Joshi

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